Let’s Have Class Outside – Leadership Experiments in the Outdoors

by | Mar 21, 2023 | Self-Leadership, Women in Leadership

I was almost blown off of Bassett Peak. That’s what it felt like, at least. We summited this peak for a 360-degree sunrise hike. It was the most spectacular sunrise I’d ever witnessed. We sat on a rocky outcropping, staring at the horizon, before the sun came into view. The winds were so harsh on my cheeks that it would appear as if I had been sunburnt. The winds were so powerful it felt like a great force was trying to pick us up. Yet, there was nowhere to duck—just knee-high manzanitas and scrub oaks. As the sun rose, we remembered that you’re not supposed to look directly into it. Having been temporarily blinded by the wind and the sun, we turned away and went back to camp, hoping that our friends would have coffee ready. 

Recently, I had a professional development opportunity through the Sanger Leadership Center to go on a NOLS trip to Arizona’s Galiuro Wilderness. With a background in the recreation industry, the idea of having my work send me backpacking for eight days was always a dream. I got more than I expected, though, on this women’s southwest backpacking trip. I was able to run various experiments to practice leadership behaviors using the Sanger Leadership Journey framework. I’ll share what my experiments were, tell you how they worked out, and share an opportunity for you to engage with the framework.

About the Journey:

The Sanger Leadership Journey framework helps you design intentional opportunities for your leadership development. Throughout your journey, you will craft hypotheses about leadership behaviors, run experiments to test them out, and reflect on the outcomes of each experiment. I used this “hypothesize, experiment, reflect” model to see if I could behave in a way that made me proud of how I showed up, feel more connected to others, and support others in my group.

Hypothesis #1: If I reduce my sarcasm, I’ll find opportunities for more authentic connection. 

While my NOLS trip was an excellent venue for learning backcountry skills, I knew that what I wanted to get out of the experience was more about self-leadership and working within a newly formed group. I crafted experiments like the one above to refine personal attributes that don’t serve me well. Sarcasm and humor have usually been positive behaviors in my life, but I wanted to see if presenting a calm, grounded personality would make space for more authentic connection with others. What I found, which is probably unsurprising to you but was eye-opening to me, was that I didn’t need to fill the space with jokes in order to be liked. When I spent less time trying to get laughs, I allowed other people to take the spotlight and tell their stories. 

Hypothesis #2: If I delegate tasks, the whole team will feel responsible for our accomplishments.

Part of the NOLS experience involves teamwork, of course. Instructors sort and re-sort students into groups a number of times. By some terrible coincidence, the day I was designated to lead my hiking group we were to climb 3,200 vertical feet with slippery gravel underfoot and a barely discernible trail. Before we set out that day, I had gathered my team, briefed them about what lay ahead, and then mentioned a few of the roles that teammates could take on at will. I offered that if they didn’t like it, they could trade or opt out entirely. My hope was that this behavior would help everyone feel responsible for the group’s success, while decreasing the decision fatigue I would otherwise encounter. As we hiked, some of these roles were more pronounced than others. For instance, we were so tired at some points that the time-keeper role didn’t need to remind us to stop for a break. At the debrief of my designated leader day, my groupmates gave me mostly positive feedback and felt that we achieved collective success. (Lest you believe that I was entirely flawless on this day, one piece of constructive criticism I received was that I was being too encouraging to a woman after she told me she needed silence to conquer her fear of heights.)

Hypothesis #3: If I perform socially gendered tasks in this group, I will not feel that my group members will expect similar behaviors again. 

When deciding to embark on a women’s outdoor leadership expedition, it wasn’t the all-women cohort that drew me in. I selected this NOLS trip because it would take me somewhere sunny during one of Michigan’s greyest months. (Coincidentally, almost all of the students on the trip were also midwesterners.) After a few days of hiking with these women, I decided that I would extend myself to be even more supportive of team members—cooking their food, washing their dishes, doling out compliments.

In male-dominated work groups, I’ve avoided performing behaviors that might cast me as a supportive caretaker. Sorry to the workplaces who have never benefitted from my bringing in chocolate chip cookies. In this all-women group, I noticed I felt less hesitation caring for others in this way and believed that my teammates would do the same for me. What resulted was that morale was boosted by my compliments, chores were done, and the group moved more seamlessly. Because of this, I’m going to try to bring a certain level of trust that my colleagues won’t view me as a ‘mom’ when I perform caretaking and maintenance tasks.

A note on this point: homogeny is not always good. While newly formed teams may bond sooner when they share an identity, the highest performing teams are diverse and psychologically safe

After my NOLS trip, it felt a little strange not to have these women in my life anymore. An impactful experience was over and the learning outcomes—and scabs—were all I had to take home with me. I am still in awe of the deep connection that was made among these women in such a short period of time. Anyone interested in a leadership experience should consider outdoor recreation in a newly formed group for this reason, this reason and this reason. Having this experience within my identity group made me feel more secure in expressing a more complete version of myself. 

For women at Michigan Ross, the Women in Leadership program is offering an Emerging Leaders Summit in March to create a space for women to enhance their self-awareness, help them overcome barriers, and grow their professional network. This will be my next opportunity to be among a group of high-performing and motivated women, and I hope you consider taking advantage, if you’re eligible. LEARN MORE ABOUT EMERGING LEADERS SUMMIT